New Tallinn University rector: Humanities not taught in excess

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Tõnu Viik on ETV's "Esimene stuudio". Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

On Wednesday's political discussion show "Esimene stuudio", freshly elected rector of Tallinn University Tõnu Viik said there is not too much of humanities taught in Estonia and that universities here are among the best in the world.

"Do we have too much of language, thoughts on history, knowing and enjoying literature? It does not seem that way to me, we do not have enough, rather," Viik said on Wednesday.

Viik pointed out data that shows that 4,000 students of the total 45,000 in Estonia are studying humanities, 5,000 of the academic staff are humanities researches and there are 400 humanities lecturers in Estonia. In addition, €14 million of the total €150 million allocated for university funding reaches humanities. "I feel it is not too much," Viik noted.

"And if robots start translating, someone still needs to go over their work," he added.

Estonian universities at the top of the world

Commenting on Tallinn University's (TLÜ) position in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, Viik noted that Estonian higher education is among the best in the world.

As of Thursday, TLÜ is placed in the last named group of the 801-1000 best universities in the world.

He however pointed out that rankings do not always show how good it is to learn in the universities and pointed out a personal experience in Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He said while the school employs world-class researchers, students are mostly taught by doctoral degree students. Students in Estonia are in direct contact with world-class lecturers themselves, Viik noted.

Commenting on his plans as TLÜ rector, Viik emphasized that making changes through administrative pressure would be unfit for the school. "It comes from what type of establishment the university is. Great quality of education means that it inspires students, inspiration cannot be reached by orders. Reform through administrative pressure is the last solution," the philosophy professor said.

Viik also explained his visions of the study process, where according to him, modern educational scientific positions say that unilateral transmission of wisdom does not work well - what is learned is forgotten fast. "The studying experience leaves a fascination, knowing how to learn. The learning process means transforming a person. Not just storing information in your head," Viik said.

Society would benefit most from focusing on weaker students

Speaking on the quality of students, Viik said that while it would be more comfortable to teach the best students, it would be most beneficial to society to focus on those who do not have as much of a scientific worldview, nor as much knowledge. The stronger students will manage anyway, he said.

Commenting on Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' (Reform) led government's coalition agreement that states the potential involvement of private funding in higher education, Viik said it makes him cautious. "If private funding means tuition fees, then it seems a simple measure to fill a gap. But if we look at how things have gone elsewhere, then the tuition will be symbolically increased and it will eventually rise to a point where children of poor families can no longer afford education," the future rector said.

He did however welcome the government's idea to allocate 1 percent of the GDP to science.

Speaking on the coronavirus pandemic's effect on the school, Viik said that TLÜ managed the process of transitioning to distance learning well. "We were able to go to e-studying almost in one day, we reoriented in a week or two, all the necessary platforms and technologies were introduced," the philosophy professor said.

While there are researchers focusing on e-study solutions and methods in TLÜ, they were not heard of in the public sphere and their contributions were not noticed, he pointed to a weakness in the school's actions during the pandemic.

A large part of a university's contributions to society does not only come from graduating students, but also the research conducted by the school's lecturers and researchers. Currently, there are few channels for these contributions, Viik admitted. "I think our universities have potential to contribute in more fields," he added.

Promises to continue commenting on societal issues

As one of the founders of citizen appeal initiative Harta 12 in late-2012, which consisted of 17 activists pointing out weak points in state leadership and actions and collected more than 18,000 signatures, Viik said he will continue expressing his opinions on societal issues. "I would like to hope that as a researcher, I maintain the option of expressing my opinion," the professor said.

Responding to a question posed by "Esimene stuudio" host Andres Kuusk about if the current political situation would call for a new Harta, Viik said "the situation of yesterday" demanded for one.

"One part of it was the international scandals and domestic politics insults that were unpleasant enough. But a phenomenon that was not given much attention was the erosion of democracy, breaking down the democratic culture in the sense of noone even thinking of coming out with solutions during a societal-political debate without quarreling with someone else," Viik said. Such erosion of democracy leads to its eventual collapse, the future rector said.

"Let us think from the position of education - if we can no longer tell our children that these are our top politicians, handling our country and if we must point at it as something to be ashamed of, it carries over to the kids and noone would believe in it any longer. But if such a culture disappears, where we look for rational solutions to question, we lose respect and an opportunity for debate. Democracy disappears in that case. A democratic culture is an important component, the breaking down of which - even if it brings you voters - works against us in the long-term," Viik said.

Answering a question on TLÜ having become a breeding ground for left-liberal Marxists, Viik said that people in TLÜ are no more to the left than people in the University of Tartu. "I have not seen a split in worldview and differences among scientific solutions," he noted.

Tõnu Viik on ETV's "Esimene stuudio". Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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